SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 25, 2013

Chief criticizes Civil Service change

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — It’s the law now. But fire Chief Steve Pasdon said he believes the city and the state made a mistake when they recently removed the positions of Peabody’s police and fire chief from Civil Service.

Now, he said, chiefs could be at the mercy of political influence.

“Fire chiefs and police chiefs need to be independent,” he said.

Loss of Civil Service protection robs the chief of his independence, by putting him on a contract with renewal at the whim of the political process, he said.

“This is not directed at the mayor,” he stressed, praising both former Mayor Mike Bonfanti and current Mayor Ted Bettencourt for protecting the department from political influence. He added that he did not speak out previously out of a desire to avoid a political situation.

Bettencourt promoted the change, which was recently passed by the Legislature as a home-rule petition, in order to have more flexibility in choosing and discharging a chief. The Civil Service process forces the mayor to choose from a limited number of candidates with high test scores. And the process of firing an employee under Civil Service is seen as difficult.

“I understand why the mayor did it,” Pasdon said. “I understand why he thinks it’s a good thing. ... I do think his intentions are honorable.” But he wondered if it will seem to have been an improvement in coming years if a less ethical mayor takes the corner office.

For his part, Pasdon is not affected by the new law — it will apply only to his successors. He will remain under Civil Service.

The most immediate impact will be in hiring a new police chief to replace Chief Robert Champagne. Champagne had planned to retire but has stayed on at the request of the mayor, waiting for Beacon Hill to approve the home-rule petition.

Pasdon downplayed some of Bettencourt’s concerns about the Civil Service process, indicating that documenting shortcomings helps in dealing with an unsatisfactory performance.

“If they don’t do the job properly and you discipline them properly, you can dismiss them,” he said.

His concerns about political pressure include the department’s responsibilities in maintaining safety standards.

“My job is to keep the community safe,” he said.

And, sometimes, enforcing those standards, which often are costly, is unpopular, he said. He recalled a ruling in the wake of the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island requiring the Ancient Order of Hibernians on Lowell Street to put in sprinklers.

“Certain members were looking to get out of it,” Pasdon said.

Bonfanti, who was mayor at the time, backed the department, but a different kind of leader could have a chief weighing the possibility that making a stand would cost him his job, Pasdon said.

“The chief has to be free from political pressure. Does he need to be accountable? Absolutely,” he said.

Without Civil Service, however, Pasdon can imagine a situation where some chiefs “may be tempted to not do the right thing.”

“It’s the difference between a strong chief and weak chief,” said Pasdon’s aide, Fire Inspector Chris Dowling.

A strong chief can convince a developer to do the right thing, Dowling said. Often, developers take their case to the mayor.

“Luckily, we’ve had mayors who want to hear from us first,” he said.

Pasdon expressed some frustration that the measure was passed at the City Council level — only Anne Manning Martin voted against it — and on Beacon Hill with virtually no opposition.

“The politicians are all making statements that this is a great thing,” he said. “But what happens down the road?”

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.